Focus on the User: Task-Oriented Websites.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of websites: ones where visitors come to be informed and entertained, and ones where users come to get things done. The second kind of website usually provides some kind of interactive service, which could be anything from letting people upload pictures to giving them a form to contact technical support representatives. Whatever your site is there to do, though, you need to make sure that it focuses on it. In other words, your website needs to be task-oriented.
The Big Mistake.
Let's say I was going to that picture upload site. What the site lets me do is upload pictures to the web, and then send the link to my friends so that they can see my pictures. Simple enough, right? The site explains the concept simply enough, has an FAQ on the kinds of pictures it can allow, a bit about the company offering the service, an offer to subscribe to a premium version of the service...
Well, that's great and all, but where do I upload my pictures? Of course, it turns out that I just happened to miss the tiny 'Upload Now!' link at the bottom of the page. The chances are I'm not the only one. I came to this website to perform a task, and the website didn't make it easy for me – because it wasn't at all task-oriented.
So how should things have worked? Well, really, the very first thing on the site should have been a very short blurb about what it did – two sentences maximum – followed by a box that allows me to find my picture and a button marked 'upload'. Why make me go through to a new page when I could do it right here? Why tell me a load of things I don't need to know before letting me upload a picture? Everything else can still be there, but it's not the focus: the focus is on getting the task done.
Taking it Further.
Of course, that was a relatively simple example, but you get the point. Let's say I'm going to the technical support website now. Let's think about this logically: why would I be doing that? The chances are it's because I have a problem that I want technical support to help me with! In this situation, I don't want to read a page about your technical support being industry-leading and great value – I just want to get my problem across. Pictures of smiling models pretending they work in technical support are particularly likely to annoy me.
How should this website work? Ideally, it should first of all offer the phone number, in large text. Many people will prefer to phone, especially the elderly, and just came to the site to find the number. Next, there should be a set of options like this:
Welcome to technical support. What are you having a problem with?
Each option links through to another page, asking the next question you would ask. This immediately lets you narrow down the possible problems – it's a far better solution than sticking up a big 'knowledge base' and letting people search through it to solve their own problem. These 'expert systems' will save you a lot of time when it comes to supporting anything, if you deploy them correctly.
A Question of Language.
In many cases, changing your site to be more task-oriented isn't really a question of redesigning – it's all in the language. For example, I recently saw an email website go from this navigation:
Check my email
Get an email account
Writing 'check my email' is a hundred times better than writing 'log in', because it matches up with what the user is actually there to do. Especially for complicated company website, it's great to have a quick 'task list' stuck up there in a corner. People may just want to sign up for whatever you offer without reading the site, or contact you, or maybe just let you know that their details have changed in some way. Whatever, it's a great courtesy to make all the interactive elements of your site easily accessible, as well as mixing them in with the information.